Sisters Celebrate Two Centuries of Service: Order's History Reflects Achievements of US Women Religious

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sisters Celebrate Two Centuries of Service: Order's History Reflects Achievements of US Women Religious


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


NAZARETH, KY. The three-member Sisters of Charity of Nazareth leadership team sat on a stone wall at the edge of a woods-fringed lake. Understandably, conversation with president Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miller and vice presidents Sr. Teresa Kotturan and Sr. Susan Gatz focused on the order's forthcoming bi-centennial celebrations, Dec. 1.

They and Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in four other countries all have their stories to tell. Yet it is not simply about one religious community, 4 an international congregation working toward common goals mutually decided. To the church, this bicentennial in Nelson County, Ky., and these sisters' work in India, Nepal, Belize and Botswana reveal afresh what all communities of U.S. women religious have attempted, have achieved and have continued since their founding.

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth's goal hasn't changed in 200 years, to bring education to the marginalized, especially and significantly, women and girls. Education is coequal to the other essential Vincentian ministries: health care through hospitals and clinics (India, Nepal), community development (Belize), centers for the mentally challenged (Nepal, India), preschools and hospices (Botswana, India), and on and on.

Dec. 1 will be 200 years to the day since 19-year-old, Maryland-born Catherine Spalding and her five friends responded to a call from Sulpician Fr. (later Bishop) Benedict Flaget for young women to teach the faith. With the encouragement of their de facto cofounder, Sulpician Fr. Jean-Baptiste David (also later a bishop), the six formed the Vincentian community of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in rural Kentucky the American frontier.

David had written to Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, who wrote of St. Vincent de Paul's injunction to Vincentians, to render "every temporal and spiritual service in their power in the person of the poor, either sick, children, prisoners, and others ... the care of the poor of all descriptions and ages, the sick, prisoners, invalids, foundlings, orphans and even the insane in hospitals and private homes."

The Bardstown diocese (now the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese) under its first bishop, Flaget, covered the equivalent of 10 future states, as far west as Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth began with a one-room school at St. Thomas Farm, near Bardstown. In North America, across two centuries, the sisters established more than 200 elementary schools, plus high schools, academies and colleges. Every time they opened a fee-paying academy, there was a "free" school nearby for poor girls. There were hospitals (St. Joseph Medical Center in Louisville is one), clinics, homes for infants and children.

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